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The strategic MENA CFO

Inside the Minds of MENA’s Top Finance Leaders

Explore the expertise of MENA's top finance leaders, who offer insights, expertise, and guidance on thriving in the intricate landscape of MENA's financial sector.

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November 28, 2023

Interviewed by

Leen Shami

Charting the Journey of a First-Time CFO: An Interview with Jarna Gaglaani, CFO of UDrive

What is your background, your education, and how have you reached this stage in your career? Tell us about yourself.

I come from Bangalore, India. It is  supposed to be the tech hub of the country.

Growing up, I didn't have anyone to look up to. 

As I was growing up, I realized that I needed  to do something extraordinary. I wanted to be a working woman, which is not normal in our culture and country.  I wanted  to create an impact.

While Chartered Accountancy was not exactly a childhood passion for me, it would give me a shot at achieving all this and more. I could also have gone for an MBA but for the expense. So I chose to pursue the former.  

To become a CA in India, you have to crack one of the toughest exams in the country. There's a pass percentage of around 2%. That was a huge challenge, but I love challenges. I took it up along with my graduation and became a CA by the time I was 22. 

I also  got a lucky break with Coca-Cola in Bangalore where I got to work in the regional finance office as a financial analyst.  I really started my career with understanding the numbers, right? As a financial analyst you create the numbers, try to interpret data,  and then see the impact it has on the business. And that's how I just got onto this path.

From there I moved to a tech company where I supported the team with the functional improvements and enhancements in accounting software or ERP. 

Thereafter, I moved to core FP&A.

I moved to Dubai and got into proper financial accounting, projections, budgeting and managing cash flows, typically what every finance manager does. 

I also consulted independently  for a while to support companies with implementations.

Finally, I landed at UDrive. I began my journey here as an accountant. I set  up the department like a finance manager, accounts manager, and have pretty much done that  in the last five years, where every year I did something completely different. This has helped me learn new things.

That has been my journey in a nutshell.

Can you tell us about the biggest challenge you have faced as a first-time CFO?

One thing that most of the corporate world suffers from and I guess I did too, is the lack of  a mentor, coach, guide, or someone who has done it before you. 

This has been my biggest struggle because while you can do everything that you know and you've learned, you do not get to learn new things. This means you have to experiment by yourself, make some mistakes, and use them to learn.

I’ve noticed that it’s easier to find peers who will guide you in professions and departments other than Finance. In tech, for example,   there are many people in a department and each can handhold  one other; they learn. But most companies  have just one chartered accountant. The others are mostly junior accountants. So, the companies that I worked with didn't have many people that  I could look up to.

As a first time CFO, my biggest challenge was getting my hands dirty to learn and improve  everything by myself. 

You spoke a lot about the chartered accountants' course. Can you tell us more about it and how it helped you in your current role as CFO?

CAs are certified accountants in India, similar to certified public accountants (CPAs) in the USA. The only difference in India is that  they've made the standards pretty high now.

Throughout my four years of the course, there were at least  16 different aspects of the business commercial world that I was exposed to. From commercial law and cost accounting, to management accounting,reporting, and   technology as well.

The thing about this course is that it gave me exposure to many areas. Now a few people from here may pick up auditing and they just work on the audit side of it. Few other people may just take accounting and they get into a FP&A role. 

But most of all, chartered accountants become managers by default. You learn about taxes, indirect taxes, and direct taxes. And you then specialize in whichever area you want to.

Every business has these key functions, whether you talk about people management, accounting, taxation, compliance, or costing and management accounting. And of course, large corporates may have different people doing different things, but in a startup, it's very important that you are aware of more than one role, and I think that's where it has helped me a lot because I could really understand when I see some data or I see some statistics, I can strategically make a decision based on the numbers.

As a CFO, you are expected to handle more than just finance functions and financial matters. You also need to have a good understanding of other operational areas such as HR, legal, marketing, compliance, and sales. How do you balance and navigate these different areas effectively as a CFO?

You do not learn everything overnight, right?

I started with the accounting function, but over a period of time the need arose that I had to do more of a financial analyst role or a business analyst role. So, I gradually grew into that role. And thereafter my role required legal expertise so I took that up as well. 

I may not be a lawyer, but I can read a legal document because that's what we learn in our business law, right? 

Over a period of time, I think, a couple of years back, our HR function needed someone to have a strategic mindset. So, I took up that upon myself to oversee the HR function as well. And I think over a period of time you understand what are the key levers of the business; you understand operations is a key, if you tackle that well, then everything else just falls in place. I took that responsibility to understand the challenges that operations were facing. I never really managed operations directly, but I started learning about it. Later, I even learned marketing. 

When I joined U Drive, there were hardly any senior people in the organization. In fact, almost all of the senior people just came on board  in the previous year. At the time, we had no choice but to really be everywhere. That’s why I learned marketing, I learned business development, I learned tech.

Whatever I could, and needed to, I just started picking up. And it's very important for a CFO to have a complete understanding of each function. You cannot, basically be in your silo of financial information and not know what's happening in other departments, because ultimately all of these functions put together push the company ahead.

With UDrive being a car-sharing company,  ​​how do you manage the balance between strategic thinking and the challenges of running a complex business with many logistics involved?

This is one thing I'm proud to share: we do almost around 40,000 rentals in a month. 

I would say it would be much better as we grow over 40,000 rentals in 1 month, but the truth is  we may be just sitting in the office sipping coffee. 

Just imagine any rental car company that has the physical delivery of vehicles, if they had to do 40,000 rentals a month, I think they may be just overstocked. I mean, they would have to have thousands of people doing that, right? But for us, it's all technology.  This is what data automation and all the systems that you build can help you with.

The business is complex. Why is it complex?  Because our product keeps moving all the time. It's not in one place, right? So which customers to target, where to target, we don't know, right? 

But what we do in the course of our business is start a process. We set some basic guidelines and expectations. Then, over a period of time, we assess what the key challenges are, and we develop tools and systems to handle those challenges. 

My CEO, Mr. Nick Watson, is someone who is a strong believer that you can never perfect anything. So you just start and by the time you implement, you accumulate enough learning to perfect it. 

Most of our thinking time goes into finding the right tools or right methods to handle a challenge.

UDRIVE was one of Pluto’s Earliest Customers, and we have been partners since. You made a very strong strategic decision to adopt modern finance tools. What made you do this? How can finance teams be more open to automation?

Again, it comes from the culture that we set in the company, right from day one.

When I joined the company, we didn't even have an ERP. The books of accounts were maintained  in Excel. We didn't have  automated  invoicing, nor automation for card payments.

Of course, it was just the first year of the company’s business, so there were too many things happening. Of course, one is that the volume of transactions we handle is so high that you don't have a choice but to go for automation in whatever form.

The second thing is that adopting technology has helped us focus on the right things in the business. Now, we don’t have to chase 20 people asking them to submit bills and cash transactions every time.

Pluto drastically reduced our issues overnight.  We knew that people would find it very convenient to always have  money on their cards. They could  just go spend,without requesting approvals and permissions repeatedly. Convenience makes a big difference.

Plus the future of payments is digital and paperless.  We cannot sustain if we don't go for modern solutions.

I do understand that a lot of accountants still come from that traditional thinking where they want control in their hand and they don't want to give it away . But, we have to think about the cost associated with it. Is it simply keeping three people occupied doing this tedious, repetitive, grunt work? Or is your objective actually to  accelerate your work? I think that is the reason when Pluto came in… I didn't have to even think for a second.

For us it was a no brainer. I mean, why should my accountant waste hours  just collating information and dumping that into the system when there is already a tool that can do it for you?

What are some of the key tactics you have planned to implement for cost containment in the upcoming years?

Well, we are already a very frugal company. We always operate like a bootstrapped company, although we are funded.

We believe that every penny that you put in has to have a ROI attached to it. I wouldn't call it cost containment, but cost optimization is something that we should all work on all the time. So, every single cost that we incur, we keep.

And I think, again, we take major help from  technology here. We are a tech driven company in every way.

I'll give you a simple example. 

Let's say we are spending some amount on rebalancing the vehicles, right? The vehicles are not where they should be, and we are just moving them. Over a period of time we have data collected. We review and analyze this data, then we find out what is the best way that we could build our own predictive way of ensuring that the vehicle is where the customer is.

We work on those kinds of data driven decisions which help reduce our costs. 

How critical is data analysis for decision-making processes within the organization, and what types of data do you focus on as a CFO? How do you go about identifying and prioritizing the different types of data that are relevant to the car-sharing industry?

Most of our work is all about data, and it is not limited to financial data alone. We also work with operational data and marketing data such as customer acquisition, the cost of customer acquisition, retention, churn rate etc.

We use the data for  operational decision making, devising strategies on the basis of it.

That's one of the key things that CFOs have to understand; their role is to help the business navigate using the data that they have. 

CFOs basically have that understanding of building a story out of the data, right?

So, we get the data, we learn what it means, we get the insights, and we see how it'll influence decision making.

Over the years, the role of the CFO has undergone a significant transformation, becoming increasingly strategic and less focused on traditional finance functions. Could you share some insights into how you have personally witnessed this evolution of the CFO role? How has your own approach to the CFO role changed over time to adapt to these changes?

The CFO role is always strategic in nature because one of the key things that a CFO has to ensure is to focus on how they can increase the return on shareholders’ equity. 

I would say that part of traditional finance will always remain with the CFO, but the evolving role of  a CFO is now majorly as   a finance business partner. Be the eye on the operations side and focus on how to increase the value of the business and how to ensure that you are able to evolve the business over a period of time. Whether it is about diversification, whether it is about going deeper  into operations or adding more verticals to the business. Whatever it is, I think, the CFO's role is always strategic in nature.

In our case, I was handling everything. When I became a CFO, my focus had to be much more on the business level, which is why we hired a finance manager and he takes care of the compliance, the finance, and the audit. He turns out the numbers, and then I read the numbers and see how we can help influence the decision making.

In your opinion, what are the most important skills for a CFO to possess in order to excel in a strategic role?

I think the  first and foremost skill would be to understand the key lever of the business in and out.

If a CFO doesn't understand what the key impact areas of the business are, then it's very difficult to support decision making. So, understand the business, what impacts the business, what impacts the revenue, what impacts your cost, what impacts your growth, your scale trajectory, everything.

The second one is about learning how to manage resources. Again, one of the biggest assets every company has is  human capital, right? 

It's very important for CFOs to understand how to maximize the return from this capital. Every penny that you invest in human resources should generate multiples of it for the company. That's how you drive efficiency. If the business was all about tools and systems, it would've been easier, but I think business is all about how  human capital is deployed to get the results. 

And thirdly, is to be open to new tools, technologies, new ideas, new thought processes.  If you don't learn technologies, if you are still dependent on old formats like Excel, and you are dependent on the old way of doing things, then I think you'll be wasting away your time doing the same work instead of adding value.

You have worked in several industries so far, including F&B and consulting. What role do you think subject matter expertise plays in the role of a CFO for the industry? And how have you acquired industry-specific SME knowledge quickly? 

We are not number crunchers anymore. That's how it was in the past, but today's systems can  do that for you. You don't have to crunch numbers and tally balance sheets. That's not your job anymore.

The role of a CFO today is to interpret the numbers and be able to give insights, valuable insights,  to the business. That is not possible if you are not a subject matter expert.

Of course, there are other things like compliance, where compliance requires your subject matter expertise. Not everyone can do that. 

Similarly, auditing. These are the things where you definitely need to have subject matter expertise.

But most importantly, I would say it’s about data, it’s about your numbers, what they talk about, and how you can disintegrate that number to a level where people can understand what it relates to. 

As far as your second question is concerned: If you understand from a business point of view, then the industry may keep changing, but the key levers don't change. Or even if they change, it's easy to pick them up because you know this is what impacts the business.

If it's a current rental business, then these are the key drivers of this business. If it's FMCG, then these are the key drivers of the business. So it's not difficult to understand if you understand the business well. 

The first few months in U Drive, I could understand what the key things were that we needed to play around with to ensure that our revenue per car increases. Or what the key things were that we needed to do to see that our gross margins start improving. These are the things that you begin to understand when you understand the business. 

One thing I want to circle back to is our topic about technology. With the rapid development of technologies like AI and the increasing digitization of businesses, CFOs must ensure their companies are adaptable to change. Success will be achieved by organizations that use technology effectively and promote internal alignment by breaking down silos. Have you introduced any new technologies that have helped UDrive’s finance team increase efficiency?

Automation was the first thing that I implemented. 

Of course, I do not understand coding, so I cannot do it myself, but having the right people around you who can do it for you, and you being the key driver, helps.

I started with automating  invoices and charging the cards. Data analytics is another thing. 

So, we onboarded data scientists who can really put things together in a manner that you can make decisions. 

And we already use AI for our data-driven decisions on operations.

There are several technologies, not necessarily that I have spearheaded everything, but at least I have been one of the first users of it for sure, if I'm not driving it myself. 

And you mentioned earlier that when you joined there was no ERP system.

I had to put that in place.

We could not do 40,000 rentals if we were still manually generating invoices.

You have to do it because you cannot ever let business get restricted. The growth cannot get restricted because you are not up to speed with technology. You always need to prepare well in advance.

UDrive is now live in Saudi Arabia. Congratulations! A lot of CFOs in MENA need to handle multi-jurisdiction finances. This is very different from the USA. How have your skills evolved to handle such tough challenges?

You may not be fully knowledgeable about a lot of things you doYou mess up, you make some mistakes, you learn from it, and you correct it. 

I think this is what my experience is about, even when it comes to finances for Saudi, so far we are managing most of it from the UAE.

Of course, as we grow, we will have them based in Saudi. We just concluded the first audit of Saudi, so we can say that we are good to go. The compliances are very different. And the sad part is not everything is documented easily.

One of the things that I learned from this entire exercise is that it's always good to have a consultant in that market who's a subject matter expert. 

What are some of the biggest pain points that you face today as a CFO, and how are you currently solving them? 

One of the biggest pain points is having all functions working in silos.

There is no common source of truth. 

We keep facing this challenge every now and then. It's not just us. I think every company faces this issue because most of the time, finance teams go with their thought process, their mindset, their logic, their numbers, and that's completely different from how the business works.

Aligning both of these and ensuring that they work as complements  to each other is one of the biggest challenges or hurdles to cross, and when you start working together, it all starts making sense. But I think having a single source of truth and having the compiled data was my biggest challenge.

Another challenge would be adopting the technology without having a hundred percent understanding of it. You want to do a lot of things, but  it takes a lot of time and it costs you a lot. Without understanding the benefits and how you're going to maximize your value on this, you are not able to motivate or engage resources to deliver it to you.This is where I think you suffer a lot because you don't know how to encapsulate what you want in technological language. Functionally, you know, this is what you want and you know it's going to have a lot of advantages, but you don't know how to communicate with the stakeholders for them to understand how important it is.

‍What advice would you give finance professionals in today’s modern age? 

First, I think all finance professionals have to wear the hat of a business partner. 

As I said, we are not number crunchers alone. We are not here only to just compile data and share it with people.

That's not the role of a finance person anymore. 

They have to be in a position to understand the business and see how they can correlate the numbers with business performance and influence decision-making. 

This is something that you need to do with each function head, because until they don't understand what they are doing, and how it is impacting in the p&l. 

The second thing I would say is, be ready to learn and adapt to changes.

I still see a lot of people who are comfortable with the old ways of doing things and don't want to try doing something new or different. Make an attempt, take that risk. You'll fail. That's fine. We'll make a mistake, we'll learn from it and we'll correct it.
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April 25, 2023

Interviewed by

Leen Shami

Inside the Mind of Eon Dental’s CFO: Mastering Strategic Healthcare Finance
Tell us about yourself - your background, education, and career journey.

I majored in accounting and finance. I got into the healthcare industry very early in my career, and I was fortunate to join Hikma  Pharmaceuticals, where I worked firsthand with the CFO and the executive chairman. 

At Hikma,  I got to work on some very exciting projects at a very early stage in my career, including the rollout of the budgeting and planning functions, their IPO, and M&A projects.

After I spent about six years over there, I naturally picked up the healthcare label and stayed within that space. I ended up working at a private equity fund in Dubai that was focusing on healthcare, among other things. 

I also worked at Sandoz, which is the generic arm of Novartis. 

After that, I joined Smith and Nephew, which is one of the world's largest medical device companies. 

I had a small entrepreneurial stint, which unfortunately didn't go too well. It was a new concept that I launched right before the onset of Covid, which wasn't very helpful.

But then that's really how I found myself joining Eon. In March 2021, I came to know about a medical device company that's based out of Jordan that's searching for a CFO- - and I joined in April 2021. 

What happens in the other departments eventually finds its way into the finance function.
Can you tell us more about your entrepreneurial journey?

The entrepreneurial journey was obviously very difficult but equally exciting. I tried to introduce a new concept to the market; similar to GPOs which are group purchasing organizations, they're quite prevalent in the US in the healthcare space. But we also have some of them over here (MENA)  in public hospitals.

So with GPOs, even though hospitals may be competing on the front-end for patients and doctors, there's a lot of room to collaborate on the back-end, generally in terms of bulk buying, and particularly for commoditized products.

So I tried to set up something similar to that over here in the UAE. I got some large hospital groups signed up, which was very good. But I think the market wasn’t ready for a new business model, and when Covid came into play, the task became more difficult. 

At that point,  I decided to take a pause, especially when a more exciting opportunity came. 

Which of these moments marked a turning point in your career, and why was it so important?

I'd start off with Hikma.

One, looking back, no company gave me the same kind of experience where I was working alongside the CFO and the executive chairman.

Two, the nature of the projects themselves. When you're based out of Jordan, only a handful of companies give you that kind of exposure, especially on that scale and that kind of global remit.

With no formal handover process, the biggest challenge was taking a look under the hood to understand the company's status quo

Later on, the opportunity that I got at Smith and Nephew was also quite exciting. It was a good turning point, and it was transformational because I got immediate C-suite exposure at a FTSE 100 company, and I also got the benefit of assembling and managing large teams and projects in complex projects across multiple jurisdictions. 

My experience at Smith and Nephew was also pivotal because they gave me the opportunity to take on a senior commercial role. I was looking after the P&L for the region over here (GCC, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan) and got out of the traditional comfort zone that I had in financial and investment management - getting into the commercial part of the business by going into the field, and engaging more with the doctors, customers, regulators, and sales reps, giving me better insights into how the data and transactions that I previously used to manage actually comes into being.

 I think these two stand out most in terms of my career.

In your role as a first-time CFO, what has been the biggest challenge so far? 

With no formal handover process, the biggest challenge was taking a look under the hood to understand the company's status quo. Eon had rapidly outgrown its infrastructure - the physical infrastructure and the soft infrastructure like its processes and accounting systems.

A lot of the physical and operational matters needed to catch up with Eon's growth. The challenges that we had with that were further compounded with the onset of Covid.

It was also difficult for me to understand the status quo of the company, which was probably one of the most important things to get your head around when you first join that kind of position.

I spent a lot of time doing operational deep dives, not just within the finance function but across many other departments, because what happens in the other departments eventually finds its way into the finance function.

So these were the biggest challenges so far.

And what is your greatest accomplishment?

It's probably too early in the journey to look back and talk about the greatest accomplishment per se.

But I can definitely say we've had some very pleasant wins.

I need to enable them by ensuring they have the financial resources to do their work and to have effective controls in place to protect the company.
Your career has involved creating budgets, financial plans, mergers and acquisitions, and financial strategies for major companies across MENA. How does that experience differ from your current role?

In terms of the planning, transactional, and strategic kind of work I currently do at Eon, it's pretty much the same. The only difference is there's less red tape and more freedom to operate. 

With Smith and Nephew or Hikma or even at Sandoz, we were bigger organizations, and the process would run through different layers, whether cascading upwards or downwards.

At Eon, because we are a relatively smaller company and have smaller teams, we can definitely be a lot more agile and nimble in terms of executing that kind of work.

That's on the overlap with the kind of work that I used to do in the past.

Besides the planning/strategic and transactional work that I just described,  I also now need to manage that with a lot of the operational work that still needs to happen.

In the past, I had the luxury of just focusing on the strategic and the planning work, but now I need to oversee a lot of the operational work that happens on a day-to-day basis. I also need to oversee the production of all the data that are associated with, or that's a precursor to, all the planning and transactional work.

So, the kind of work is very similar, but how it happens is definitely a lot more complex.

A CFO today is expected to not only lead finance functions and manage the financial matters at hand but also wear many operational hats: HR, legal, marketing, compliance, and sales. How do you go about leading & navigating those different areas as a CFO?

My role is primarily to enable these functions. I need to enable them by ensuring they have the financial resources to do their work and to have effective controls in place to protect the company.

These are the two major things in terms of how I need to support these functions.

I see it more in terms of enabling these teams.

At the end of the day, I'm very lucky to be working with some of the most talented and motivated individuals in the industry.  The team really comes together like a family. Our CEO and our People and Culture team have done a very good job in not only recruiting the right kind of employees but stakeholders as well. Everyone is fully motivated, everyone takes full ownership, and everyone at the office works like friends coming together with common interests to work on a project. So I feel it's more like working with family and friends as opposed to a formal kind of office environment.

It makes such a big difference because it becomes less about following up and ensuring people are doing what they're supposed to be doing and just giving people the space to do their work.

So, getting the right people, I think, is key, and I'm very lucky to be working with that kind of setup, where my role is more as an enabler.

Wearing multiple hats as a CFO comes hand-in-hand with strategy. Since joining Eon Dental in 2021, have you introduced new strategies to help the business move forward?

We have different brainstorming sessions, different ideas, and we always come up with points where a decision needs to be made, whether it’s for operational matters or strategic matters, and they vary in terms of their importance and their scope.

Sometimes it could be giving solicited feedback about a specific issue, whether negotiating with a major supplier or a customer. Or sometimes, it can be sharing my vision or how I feel about where the business is going to be or where it needs to be in the coming few years to help maximize shareholder value.

So, it's not about introducing a specific strategy, and all of us are running towards it; it's more about thinking out loud on general or more specific issues on hand.

Expense management is a big issue, especially when you are in a high growth kind of setup, like Eon; high growth, high investment.
We've seen more CFOs taking on the CEO role or acting as interim CEOs in recent years. How closely do you work with Qais, the CEO? And how do you ensure that the CEO-CFO relationship is strong?

We definitely have a strong relationship in terms of how we operate - both formally and informally. 

We have formally scheduled executive leadership meetings; it's myself, the COO, and Qais, the CEO. We have scheduled meet-ups where we meet once a week, and we discuss operational matters, strategic matters, and general issues on hand. So we have a placeholder for that.

We also engage many times throughout the day, and the week, through phone calls, face-to-face meetings, and WhatsApp.

Again, I'll go back to the kind of relationship that we have; it's less about a formal kind of relationship and more about like-minded individuals coming together and working for a shared belief. This is how I see it. 

A big challenge facing most CFOs today is expense management. Is that an issue you’ve faced in your career? And what have you done to tackle such an issue?

More specifically, at Eon, yes, of course, it is a challenge.

Expense management is a big issue, especially when you are in a high growth kind of setup, like Eon; high growth, high investment.  How we deal with this is really just a combination of instilling a sense of ownership within the team and having a collective sense of responsibility to make sure that every dollar we spend matters, every dollar we spend counts. And then, we couple that with well-designed controls, policies, procedures, tools, and robust and proactive expense management functions.

We are big on that at Eon. We just need to ensure that we are deploying our resources in the right places at the right times.

The purpose over here is to try to streamline our workflows as much as possible.
I recently read an interview with Zendesk’s CFO, and he states that “Manual operational processes must be eliminated if you want your team to experience frictionless growth.” Have you adopted or introduced any new technologies to reduce manual work for Eon Dental’s finance team since joining?

Yes, of course.

Being a med-tech company, we have the luxury of having tech and product teams that help us automate a lot of the processes that we have. Whether it's invoicing, bookkeeping, data entry, or data management.

So yes, we are big proponents in trying to automate as much as we can, but at the same time, we also recognize that some issues we are not able to automate, and we still need to rely on manual processes.

But again, to the extent possible, we do try to automate as much as possible, whether it's relying on our in-house teams or utilizing third-party tools.

The purpose over here is to try to streamline our workflows as much as possible.

In today's rapidly evolving and unpredictable world, finance teams face the daunting task of adapting to emerging threats. The emergence of groundbreaking technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and unprecedented access to data present exciting new avenues for executing finance strategies. However, these advancements also give rise to fresh vulnerabilities, including cybersecurity threats and the potential for limited visibility into corporate data. What are your views on these developments and their impact on finance departments?

Despite the challenges that come with it, I'm a big proponent of automation, artificial intelligence, and utilizing data to the fullest extent possible. The important part is having the intent of working towards that and having the right systems and the right setups in place to protect that data so that you're able to sprint then towards the automation, the AI, and the different work streams that we're talking about.

For Eon, that challenge is compounded because not only do we have our own data that we need to protect, but we also deal with sensitive patient data. So, we need to be extra careful with our own data and patient data. 

A lot of our customers are global, so they have very high expectations in terms of how we manage data privacy. Even within the regional markets, the bar is continuously raised. Saudi and the UAE are introducing laws that are specific to data privacy, and we always need to comply with those.

Not only is it a challenge for us to protect our own data, but also to ensure that our customer's data and patient data is also adequately protected.

So definitely, it comes with its challenges, but I think, net-net, it is something that streamlines our operations. 

A CFO shouldn't be focusing on just bookkeeping, journal entry, and keeping track of data. It's looking at the data, coming up with meaningful insights, and using that to give advice, whether it's to the CEO, the COO, or the different units of the business.
We’ve seen a lot of articles coming out about how AI could be replacing certain jobs, a few of which fall into the finance function. Do you think AI could potentially replace these jobs?

I think there will always be a necessity for a human element to it, but to the extent possible, I'm all for automation. Especially when we talk about repetitive tasks that, in a sense, have less value add compared to analyzing the data. I'd much rather put the energy and resources towards analyzing and managing the data as opposed to entering the data. 

I don't see us getting to a stage where everything is completely automated. We deal with multiple parties and multiple systems, so there's always going to be a requirement for human intervention in terms of data, but I think the idea is to try to minimize that to the fullest extent possible and try to put the resources behind analyzing the data and coming out with meaningful insights on what the data is telling us to come up with proper recommendations.

This is becoming a more common theme in the last decade, so how do you see the CFO role shifting from a traditional finance function role towards more of a strategic role?

One is a precursor to the other.

I don't think you can be an effective advisor/CFO without having a proper and robust data set, whether it's from within the company or from outside the company. So the first thing is to get that part right, get it in place, and make it as efficient as possible.

But beyond that, a CFO shouldn't be focusing on just bookkeeping, journal entry, and keeping track of data. It's looking at the data, coming up with meaningful insights, and using that to give advice, whether it's to the CEO, the COO, or the different units of the business. It's trying to maximize the value of the company using the data that is generated from the traditional finance function.

If I were to give one piece of advice, it would be to embrace technology to the fullest extent possible.
Our current global economic climate is characterized by rising interest rates and inflation. Do you have any tips for framing your outlook against a backdrop of rising interest rates and inflation around the world?

I can share from the perspective of someone within a high-growth startup.

My advice would be to make every dollar that you spend count.

Funding or access to funding is becoming more scarce, and it's becoming a lot more expensive.

So just make sure that every dollar that you spend counts, plan conservatively, and try to execute aggressively. Especially in this climate where funding is becoming more difficult, try to be as conservative as possible, but obviously, you still need to execute your plans.

Having said that, for us, I think 2023 will be a little bit of a pivotal year. We have some exciting projects in our pipeline, and hopefully, they will materialize towards the end of this year. 

‍What advice would you give finance professionals in today’s modern age? 

I would say it's probably going to be a reiteration of most of the things we discussed, particularly around automation.

I think my advice to them would be to embrace it. Some people might be a little bit averse to it, but I think that people should embrace it; it adds a lot of value, it streamlines a lot of the workflows and enables those finance professionals to allocate more of their time towards more value-add kind of work streams that will definitely benefit the company.

If I were to give one piece of advice, it would be to embrace technology to the fullest extent possible.

Finance is like the central nervous system. Everything that happens within a company always comes back to the finance team; the good and the bad. Having these kinds of tools will enable the finance team to become a lot more effective in servicing the different elements of the organization or the different departments of the organization.

All interviews

5
March 1, 2023

Interviewed by

Leen Shami

The Evolving Role of Finance Professionals: An Interview with Poomesh Mathew
Tell me about yourself, your career journey, and how you ended up in the UAE.

I grew up in India, across the country, since my parents had transferable jobs. Professionally I've had a career for 14 years. I started with PWC in Bangalore, moved on to EY for a brief time, and then worked for a big conglomerate called Wipro in India. I was part of the FP&A core central team there. I built something very innovative out there, and there it occurred to me that this is a larger problem to be solved.Inspired by the start-up environment brewing in India at that point, I set up my own consulting company circa about 2014. Tried my hand at teaching at a university. I did that for about the next five years to come. Continued with my consultancy for a few years before exiting the same to join a Fintech called Kabbage.

Kabbage was a big FinTech lender based out of the USA. They set up their talent center in India, and I was heading the same for the Finance function. Unfortunately, during covid, the ops in India had to be shut down, and later the company was acquired by American Express.

Continuing my journey with Fintech since 2020, I have been into the buy now pay later space.Throughout the last 3 years, I've worked with companies like ZIP and Sezzle, and that led me to my role in Tabby, which is a buy now pay later leader in the GCC region based out of Dubai.

And that's my journey so far. That's how I got to Dubai.

The nuances of getting culture are very critical to be successful in the Middle East
Can you tell us what inspired you to become a professor at Christ University in India?

Firstly there was always a passion for teaching, and secondly, the fact that I had my own setup helped me manage time better. I was involved with a lot of L&D in the organizations that I had worked for, and this just wings my passion.

What do you think are the key challenges CFOs and/or finance professionals face in the UAE?

I wouldn't say challenges; these are more avenues for learning.

I worked in the USA, India, and now the Middle East. MENA region is very peculiar, especially a place like UAE, because an average CFO here interacts with at least four kinds of different nationalities. It could be nationality; it could be a different culture.

The first hurdle that you had to obviously come across is communication. How tasks are done and understood, interactions amongst colleagues, and business is generally conducted.

The nuances of getting culture are very critical to be successful in the Middle East because it's not just folks from UAE. Ironically, in the UAE, you'll find more folks outside of UAE, right? And especially in finance, you would find your bankers from a certain nationality. Your teammates are from different nationalities. You can have language challenges. A lot of tax laws are being evolved here. So there's always this continuous challenge of understanding the culture bit, the language bit because of its impact on the legal regulation. So culture is the biggest challenge, right?
The second hurdle is linguistics. When operating in this region, Arabic is a skill set that one should have on one’s team. Right from a simple task of reading an invoice/bill to sometimes having conversations at offices, this is an angle to be factored in. Not so much in the UAE but of course, if you look at the region, it would definitely have to be factored in.
Thirdly, the pace at which business is done here is phenomenal. The MENA region is going through a change at an exceeding pace where you see a shift from traditional businesses. But you have someone who's doing things in a traditional email way and someone using tools like Slack. Now the pace at which you have to shuttle between the two is quite overwhelming, right? So if you are a finance professional or a CFO in the MENA region, you have to be prepared to deal with both worlds, a traditional, conventional kind of world, which is, rather, I would say, stable but static. On the other hand, there's also this dynamism and dynamic world, which is full of energy; things are changing at a super quick pace. Being a CFO, you have to manage both these dimensions at the same time.

Business here is conducted swiftly and extremely professionally, so you got to be on your heels to deliver what has been promised. The laws are evolving and mirroring one of the best in the world, so there is a lot of upkeeping to be done.

You touched on the subject of culture a lot, and it's interesting because, in one of my previous interviews with a CFO, that was spoken about a lot as one of the main challenges. So I'd ask you the same question I asked him: What was the biggest cultural difference when you moved from India to the UAE? 

One cultural advantage is the adherence to rules and regulations. Both in terms of the clarity of how, what, and when to be done and the companies following the same was a pleasant experience. This results in lesser litigation and ambiguity.

So, if you know what you want to do, it's a great pace; you can chalk down your points and move on.

A lot of old tradition works here because many things are understood, explained, time-tested, and proven, and it has worked well. So, the culture to introduce something new and getting its acceptance to the market, I feel, was a little challenging. But once it's accepted, it's like the duck taking to water. It's adopted very quickly. But the introduction of something new requires a little more planning.

You have to be as insightful and resourceful for the business because you're no longer viewed as part of the organization that just turns out the financial reports; you're far closer to the business. 
In UAE's financial services industry, do finance professionals face a high level of regulation? 

Well, that's quite an interesting question.

At least in my experience, I have seen far more regulatory environments where you require a lot of reporting. The UAE’s financial service environment is quite advanced, I would say, in terms of its speed of setting up something. The clarity in what has to be followed and what has to be reported is very open. I would say that things are extremely clear here. There's a very reduced need for applying judgment on items because a lot of things are extremely clear.

You can take DFSA, for example, right? Take any of their regulatory reporting requirements; it's well explained, ironing out any room for doubt; I would say, a very advanced model. It does not require too many compliances, but the compliance is pretty wholesome and clear in what must be done.

I think this is one of the friendliest regulators to be complying with in the sense that you are seeking things like clarity, when, and how. So, the rules are very well laid out.

You mentioned earlier that communication is really important for modern finance professionals. And on the subject of that, we can see that the role of the CFO has changed a lot over the past decade, and it has become more focused on strategy. So throughout your career journey, have you introduced any new strategies to any company you have worked with?

I would say things evolve, and finance in the industry is primarily a support function, right? Our objective is to ensure that the business folks get what they need when they need it.

Starting from my career back in 08, the requirement, what the business guys had back then to today, has it changed drastically? Not so much. But the form in which the information is consumed, has it changed? Yes.
Today,  life has changed in terms of how they view data and information. There has to be storytelling that is compelling and insightful. Since everyone is caught up in a million things, communicating just the information is not good enough. There has to be clarity on the why, what, and how. This strategic thinking needs to be incorporated into any communication from a CFO. 

As such, anyone who's using technology for the past one or two decades has got so used to getting insightful information, and this is expected from every function and finance is no exception to that. So versus let's say 20 years ago where you could put something in Excel or put a bar in a graph chart and say, this is what has been done. Today, people would want live data, live dashboard reporting, and insightful suggestions, saying, okay, this is wrong; what should we do?
For example, just see how things have changed how we do regular stuff, like ordering food or working out. The manner in which information is consumed has changed, and hence CFOs will need to keep up. That being said, things have to be kept simple and effective at the same time. There is no one way of doing it, but one should read the audience before doing so.

Today,  as a finance professional, it's hard for you to say, hey, I do not know how to handle big data. You have to scale up. You should know how to use Power BI and Tableau and extract data from them. The proximity with which you work with business has entirely changed. Throughout my journey, the strategy I've adopted is changing the mindset and the attitude of the finance folks saying that we are not a team that just churns out information, but we work closely with the rest of the team. You have to be as insightful and resourceful for the business because you're no longer viewed as part of the organization that just turns out the financial reports; you're far closer to the business. 

Automation and new technologies are always there to replace or accentuate grunt work.
That actually takes me to my next question, which focuses a lot on technology. One thing we can see in the finance world is there are two perspectives on emerging technologies and automation. Some would say it removes the drudge work for finance professionals and leaves them room to generate value in the company, while others may believe that it's replacing positions for finance professionals. What are your thoughts on this?

Well, in my view, technology automation has always been there. For the past decade, the pace at which you're adopting these has increased.

We always had ERPs or some bit of innovation or tech to assist. Now, forget whether it replaces someone or not, if you were to ask an accountant or someone in the finance field: what would you rather do? Would you rather do grunt work full day or would you would wanna do something exciting? Everyone almost chooses the word exciting, yet there are few of us who don't wanna go through the change. So it's just the change process. Now, you have software that, let's say, can fill up a trial balance within a second. Fair enough. But still, the insightfulness of the finance person has not gone away.

Automation and new technologies are always there to replace or accentuate grunt work. It makes life easier for the financial professional, but not so much for replacing in that sense. To be honest, if the work was so replaceable, then you shouldn't have done it in the first place. They should have had an easier thing.

The simplest example I can give is the bank and the ATM. What would you rather do? Would you rather go to the bank and tell it and then withdraw the money in cash, or would you prefer an ATM? So did ATMs make banks redundant? Did credit cards make banks redundant? No. They just found different avenues. These two help us in our work, and the finance has to cope with and match up with the pace, and if they're able to do that, then the value extraction is immense. So the trick is to know how to leverage it rather than be scared of it.

On the same topic, do you see any particular technologies transforming finance in the future or becoming valuable to finance teams?

Yeah, certainly. The talk of the town, Chat GPT. When so much autonomous intelligence is put into a software which is able to judge basic work, right?

So just imagine a scenario there, you know, you're talking to a supplier. The supplier just mails the quote, and the engine knows who to take the quote to, gets the response interactively, get back to the team, and if the budget is already fed into the engine, it knows whether to approve it, not approve it. You don't need the finance persons group always to give us his or her consent. Take the supplier, create the PO, and then do it.

So the autonomous auto chat bot, I feel, has a huge potential to transform the way we view finance today. One challenge is that a lot of us try imagining the future with the present, what we're exposed to. It need not be, right?

Back when we had the feature phone, no one really imagined how the smartphone would transform things, but once it came, now you can't imagine. The challenges we try imagining the future with the tools that we have. The tools will change. The requirements will change. Any interactive chatbot, which I feel, once it has a little more autonomous capability, would take out a lot of tasks that are time-consuming and not so much of value add today. I don't know exactly the technical specifics of what the technology is called, but intelligent bots would replace a lot of non-value add tasks that humans perform today, especially in finance.

Business folks want simple, straightforward, actionable information they can work on.
Are there any critical skills you think a modern finance professional or CFO needs to be successful?

Yeah. Certainly.

Apart from traditional, analytical, and problem-solving skills. I think learning and relearning, unlearning and relearning, is extremely important because every five years, the process or the technology completely transforms itself. You must deploy something new. Although your objectives sometimes remain the same, the way to achieve them completely changes. Democratization of success or democratization of technologies that is available to all. You have to transform these tools into your process.

I think the skill is the ability to learn, know about new technology, new tools, and how the world functions, and fuse it back into what you do. So you don't have a large team, our process will not remain constant for 2, 3, 4, 5 years, or decades like it used to be earlier. The critical skill would be learning and unlearning, unlearning old things, relearning new things, and trying to fuse them into your average day.

We see a lot of CFOs talking about the importance of communication and storytelling as you progress in your finance career. Can you talk more about that?

Numbers don't attract anyone or don't attract a lot of people. So you obviously got to make things simple for others, and that's where this ability to make a narrative and a story comes into play.

In one of my very, very early career roles, where I was building a dashboard for business folks, one of them came up and he was like, yeah, that's fine, but what do I do? I explained again the P&L, and he again asked, what do I do? And that's when it kind of dawned upon me that what he's asking is that if things are bad, what should he work on? He needs a simple message, and that's where you realize that you should be able to tell the story.

When we're children, we grow up, and we hear stories, right? And usually, the end of the story has a moral, that's your take home, and that's what you act upon. When every CFO is talking about storytelling, I think what they're referring to is this particular feature that we narrate what's happening in the business, but at the end of the day, you give the business folks what they have to act on. And that has to be powerful. The easiest example I always give is your Apple watch. If you've been sitting for two hours, your Apple watch says stand up, walk, and that's what human minds like absorbing; simple messages. That is storytelling that finance has to align with versus number differences and percentages.

Business folks want simple, straightforward, actionable information they can work on. And that is easier because not everyone would have the degree to understand a complex financial statement. It's more to do with, “hey, this is what I need to work on, this is what I need to achieve, and that's the storytelling scene.”

For our last question, do you have any advice for young finance professionals?

One, I think young professionals are way better than when we, or at least when I started, in terms of their exposure, curiosity, and knowledge. I would say a few young professionals know the breadth of things, but they aren't interested in knowing the depth of things. This is something that needs to be addressed. There has to be a fundamental understanding of how things work and how to understand something completely. One should avoid skimming through the surface-level understanding.

5
February 21, 2023

Interviewed by

Leen Shami

Navigating the Fast-Paced World of Cybersecurity as a CFO: An Interview with Mitesh Jesani
The role of a CFO is always changing and evolving. In what ways has your role as a CFO evolved in the last couple of years, considering the market volatility and various uncertainties?

The role of a CFO has evolved significantly in response to the global pandemic in 2020 and the economic challenges it brought. In this new business environment, CFOs have been tasked with:

  • Managing cash flow and financial stability: CFOs have had to ensure that their companies have enough cash to weather the storm of the pandemic-induced recession.
  • Assessing and managing financial risks: With so much uncertainty in the market, CFOs have had to be proactive in identifying and mitigating potential financial risks.
  • Adapting to a rapidly changing market: CFOs have had to be nimble and responsive, making decisions quickly to adapt to a rapidly changing market. Using tools and technology has allowed automation of the day-to-day tasks, freeing up time and resources for these more value-add issues.
  • CFOs have had to stay on top of new tax laws and regulations and ensure that their company is fully compliant.

Overall, the role of a CFO has become even more critical in ensuring the financial health and stability of a company in the post-pandemic world. 

In the remote set-up, cyber risk has increased many-fold. What are the main challenges that CFOs face today?

Data security has become a bigger concern for CFOs. CFOs have to make sure the right protocols and software are in place to prevent data leaks and protect sensitive information. This is an expansion to the responsibility of CFOs, who are tasked with managing the full support function of a company. 

It is a critical responsibility to keep data safe and secure data from potential breaches. 

It's important to consider that the cost of a security breach can be much higher than the cost of implementing strong cybersecurity measures
Many organizations may view cyber security as a cost drain. What are your thoughts on this?

Yes, cybersecurity is a cost for a company.

Implementing and maintaining effective cybersecurity measures often requires investment in technology, software, and personnel. The cost of cybersecurity can include expenses for firewalls, antivirus software, intrusion detection systems, security training for employees, and hiring specialized personnel.

However, it's important to consider that the cost of a security breach can be much higher than the cost of implementing strong cybersecurity measures. A data breach can result in the loss of sensitive information, damage to a company's reputation, and potentially significant financial losses from lawsuits, fines, and lost business.

Therefore, companies typically view cybersecurity as a necessary cost of doing business, as it helps to protect their assets and minimizes the risk of financial losses from a security breach.

What can a CFO do in order to safeguard their department from incidents, and how should a CFO act when there is a breach?

As a CFO, you can take several steps to safeguard your department from cybercrime:

  1. Implement strong passwords and regularly change them.
  2. Train employees on security awareness and good practices for protecting sensitive information.
  3. Invest in anti-virus and anti-malware software.
  4. Encrypt sensitive data both in storage and in transit.
  5. Use two-factor authentication wherever possible.
  6. Implement access controls to limit who has access to sensitive information.
  7. Regularly back up important data and store backups in a secure location.
  8. Work with a reputable cybersecurity firm to regularly test and assess your department's security measures.
  9. Have a well-documented incident response plan in place in case of a security breach.

If a breach does occur, it's important for the CFO to act quickly and decisively. 

This might include working with external consultants to handle the situation, as well as communicating with relevant stakeholders and the media. 

It's also important to take steps to prevent future breaches and ensure that your organization's data is secure.

With Covid and remote work taking the world by storm, has Spire Solutions benefitted from this trend?  

With more people working remotely and using digital tools to communicate and collaborate, there is a greater need for robust cybersecurity measures to protect sensitive information and prevent data breaches. 

This trend has increased demand for our services, which had a positive impact on our financial performance.

Cybersecurity threats are constantly evolving which makes it difficult for a single company to maintain a competitive advantage over long periods of time
Was your team able to cope with this rapid change from a financial planning and forecasting perspective?

Growth is a nice problem to have, but it can still be a problem.

In our team, we focused on these steps:

  1. Conduct market research to understand the current and future demand for cybersecurity services and use this information to inform financial forecasting.
  2. Monitor industry trends and developments related to remote work and cybersecurity, and use this information to adjust financial forecasting as needed.
  3. Invest in the development of new products and services related to remote work and cybersecurity, and incorporate the potential revenue from these products into financial forecasting.
  4. Collaborate with other departments to gain a better understanding of the potential impact of the trends and increased focus on cybersecurity, and incorporate this information into financial forecasting.
Cyber-security products take a lot of time to develop and require notable resources. From a financial perspective, how do you choose what products to invest in next?

From a financial perspective, there are several factors that we always consider:

  • Market demand: It is important to assess the current and future demand for cyber-security products in the market and prioritize investments in products that are likely to be in high demand.
  • Competitive advantage: A company should also consider its own competitive advantage and the potential for different cyber-security products to give it an edge over competitors. Investing in products that provide a unique benefit or advantage can be a smart financial decision.
  • Development cost: The cost of developing cyber-security products can be significant, so it is important to consider the potential return on investment carefully and whether the investment is worthwhile.
  • Market potential: It can also be helpful to assess the potential market size and growth for different cyber-security products and prioritize investments in products with a large and growing market.
During your extensive career, you had a chance to manage the finances of manufacturers and energy companies. Could you highlight the main differences between the industries from a financial and expense management perspective?

Firstly, manufacturers and energy companies typically have large capital investments in physical machinery or infrastructure that must be carefully managed. 

Cybersecurity companies tend to have much lower capital investments as their primary assets are software licenses and personnel. But cybersecurity companies often have large expenses associated with research and development in order to stay ahead of ever-evolving malicious threats.

Secondly, manufacturers and energy companies tend to have competitors that are in the same country or region. Producing their output in similar conditions. 

Cybersecurity companies face global competition. Meaning that some companies may have easier access to cheaper or a bigger workforce pool.

Also, cybersecurity threats are constantly evolving which makes it difficult for a single company to maintain a competitive advantage over long periods of time.

Finally, the regulatory landscape is much more significant for  the energy and manufacturing industries. 

While there are some industry-specific guidelines for cybersecurity firms, these rules are often less rigorous than those imposed on manufacturers or energy producers.

Expense tracking and reporting systems help us to monitor our spending in real-time and identify areas where there may be overspending. 
What are some of the main strategies put in place to keep expenses under control? Do you still have to tackle manual spend management, or is Spire Solutions fully digital in this sense?

Setting clear budgets and spending limits: By setting clear budgets and spending limits, we ensure that we are not overspending on different expenses. 

We conduct regular expense audits as they help us to identify overspending or where we could cut costs. 

Expense tracking and reporting systems help us to monitor our spending in real-time and identify areas where there may be overspending. 

Since you’ve joined Spire Solutions, which expense category would you say had increased the most? What caused it?

Personnel and labor costs! This increase is caused by the high demand for skilled security experts. The latest trends in digitization and remote work highlighted the importance of cybersecurity. So organisations have to invest more money in order to hire and retain top talent, as well as train existing employees.

What are the main opportunities and challenges you will face as a CFO in the next 5 years?

In the next 5 years, the main opportunities for a CFO will include:

  • Digitization and automation of financial processes, leading to increased efficiency and cost savings.
  • The use of data and analytics to drive decision-making and improve financial performance.
  • Increased focus on sustainability and ESG initiatives, which may lead to new revenue streams and cost savings.
  • A growing emphasis on strategic partnerships and M&A activity, which can provide access to new markets and technologies.

The main challenges for a CFO in the next 5 years will include:

  • Managing the economic uncertainty and volatility resulting from ongoing geopolitical and macroeconomic events.
  • Staying ahead of rapid technological change, including emerging technologies such as blockchain, AI, and cloud computing.
  • Addressing the increasing complexity of regulatory requirements and compliance, especially in the wake of recent data privacy regulations.
  • Balancing the need to invest in growth initiatives with the requirement to maintain financial stability and discipline.
What main changes have you implemented to reflect the upcoming corporate TAX regulations?

Good governance, cost management & compliance is always high priority. Ensuring the FR is correctly set up and all the data required for the upcoming regulatory changes are correctly reflected today. 

At this point, we are fully prepared for the tax changes!

5
February 7, 2023

Interviewed by

Leen Shami

From Corporate Finance to CFO of a Startup Powerhouse: Adil Norat’s Bold Career Shift

Adil is KMMRCE's Group Chief Financial Officer, bringing more than 20 years of senior financial experience to the company. He is responsible for overseeing KMMRCE's group financial operations. 

Joining KMMRCE from Network International – the largest payment processor in the Middle East, where Adil served over 5 years, with the last position being Senior Vice President of Finance. While at Network International, he played a crucial part in several key strategic initiatives, including its IPO in April 2019 and, more recently, its expansion into KSA. He also led efforts that strengthened the business's commercial analysis and control framework. 

Adil has spent over a decade with private equity-backed Fintech (payments) businesses, helping them to develop and deliver their strategies, enhance profitability and drive growth organically and inorganically, including many M&A activities and two IPOs. 

He has also held many other senior positions across the Middle East and Europe, including Finance Director - Middle East, Head of Planning (Strategy / Commercial Finance), and Group Head of Financial Planning and Analysis (FP&A), to name a few.

Tell us a little about yourself; what is your life story? How did you get started in your profession and your eventual progression to group chief financial officer? 

I was born in the UK and spent most of my life there. I graduated from the University of London, Queen Mary, with a BSc (Hons) in Mathematics with Computer Science, bringing together my interests in maths/finance and technology. 

After that, I worked for the government as a VAT assurance officer for around 10 months while I was waiting to achieve my placement with a professional services firm to commence my chartered accountancy qualification with the ICAEW. I moved on to work for Kingston Smith (now Moore Kingston Smith), at the time a top 20 firm in the UK, and spent nearly 4 years there, after which I decided to go to a Big 4 firm. 

The role of CFO is becoming increasingly strategic and business-focused, requiring a new set of skills and a different approach to decision-making.

I spent one and a half years with Ernst & Young in the Strategic Growth Markets division, working and leading audits of clients from varied industry sectors and sizes, including startups and FTSE 250 organizations. 

After that, I got the opportunity to work at First Data, which was my first entry into the FinTech payment space. At the time, I was unaware of the FinTech space and fell into it by chance. First Data was a massive organization with greater than 20,000 employees across the world. When I joined the organization, it was under private equity ownership, previously listed in the US. I joined as a financial accountant but quickly progressed. I got promoted during my probation period to finance manager and then senior finance manager to lead the UK, Ireland, and Western Europe (UKIWE).

A few years later, an opportunity came knocking at my door to join WorldPay as the Head of Consolidation. While undertaking my due diligence, I quickly became invested in their equity story and the opportunity to make a difference and drive toward a potential IPO, so I took the leap and spent five and a half years there.

I progressed through various roles at WorldPay, from Head of Consolidation to Group Head of FP&A to Head of Planning for the largest division, WorldPay UK. My journey saw me moving away from a group role into more of a commercial focus; supporting the strategy, and working on the IPO, which was one of the largest IPOs of all time; straight into the FTSE 100.

Five and a half years later, I joined Network International as Vice President of Finance of Acquiring, which quickly progressed into Finance Director for the Middle East and eventually into Senior Vice President of Finance. During my time there, my roles focused across both business lines, Merchant and Issuer Solutions, and entailed being a trusted business advisor to senior executives through the provision of enhanced commercial analysis, insights, and recommendations, helping to drive the financial and business strategy and driving FP&A. I also played a crucial part in several key strategic initiatives, including the IPO of Network International in April 2019 and, more recently, its expansion into KSA.

An opportunity at KMMRCE came along: a portfolio of companies and investments that offers headless, agnostic, SaaS and PaaS technology & global FinTech services. This was the perfect next move as it gave me the opportunity to take the number one position in finance, gain experience in a true startup environment and obtain greater exposure to investors and fundraising. Hence, in August 2022 I took on the challenge and joined KMMRCE as Group CFO. 

What was one of the biggest challenges you've faced throughout your career?

Some of the biggest challenges I have faced in my career would be balancing short-term and long-term goals, ensuring compliance with regulation and ethical standards, and adapting to the constantly changing market conditions. This was exemplified during COVID-19, which required a lot of detailed analysis, commercial insights, and continued scenario planning due to the unpredictable market dynamics. 

In the Middle East, personal relationships are highly valued in business, which can be a key factor in building trust and establishing business connections. This is known as “wasta," the Arabic word for connections.
You have worked in the UK and Europe and then moved on to work in the Middle East; what differences have you noticed in the business landscape?

In general, the business environment in the UK and Europe tends to be more heavily regulated than in the Middle East. This can include areas such as labor laws, taxes, and health and safety regulations. Additionally, the UK and many European countries have a strong tradition of labor unions, which can also affect how businesses operate.

The Middle East, on the other hand, is known for its relatively less-restrictive business environment. This can make it easier for companies to set up and operate in the region, but it can also make it more challenging for employees to assert their rights. In many Middle Eastern countries, labor laws and regulations are not as developed or strictly enforced as they are in the UK and Europe.

One major difference that I have noticed is the cultural differences. In the Middle East, personal relationships are highly valued in business, which can be a key factor in building trust and establishing business connections. This is known as “wasta," the Arabic word for connections. On the other hand, in the UK and Europe, decisions tend to be more formalized and based on contracts and legal agreements rather than personal relationships.

What do you think are the top qualities of successful CFOs? 

There are a number of qualities that are often considered to be important for a CFO to be successful in their role. Some of the most important ones include:

  • Strong financial and accounting skills: A CFO should have a deep understanding of financial and accounting principles and be able to apply them effectively to the business. This includes creating and interpreting financial statements, analyzing financial performance, and identify areas for improvement.
  • Strategic thinking: A CFO should be able to think strategically and understand the broader business context in which the company operates. This includes identifying and evaluating potential business opportunities and risks and developing and implementing financial strategies that align with the company's overall goals.
  • Leadership and management skills: A CFO should be able to lead and manage a team of finance professionals and communicate effectively with other members of the senior management team and the board of directors. Also, in this day and age, it is crucial to show and have emotional intelligence.
  • Strong analytical and problem-solving skills: A CFO should be able to analyze financial data and identify trends and patterns. 
  • Excellent communication and interpersonal skills: A CFO should be able to communicate financial information clearly and effectively to stakeholders, both internal and external. This includes the ability to explain complex financial information to non-financial managers, board members, and investors.
  • Risk Management: A CFO should be able to identify and evaluate financial risks and develop strategies to mitigate them.
  • Adaptability and flexibility: In today's fast-paced business environment, CFOs need to be able to adapt to change and be open to new ideas. They should be able to navigate through uncertainty and respond to the constantly evolving economic and business conditions.
  • Technical Knowledge: A CFO should keep updated with the latest technology, software, and regulations to drive the company’s growth and compliance.

Of course, every company and every situation is unique, so the specific qualities that a CFO needs to be successful will depend on the company and its circumstances. But in my view, a CFO who possesses a combination of these qualities is likely to be successful in their role.

You have worked at one of the largest processors in the region – Network International. Tell us a little about your journey there and how your experience was shaped by being part of a robust financial infrastructure business built in the Middle East.

Over time it's been about putting the proper controls in place, delivering enhanced reporting, which allowed the business to make easier decisions and moving the business forward by helping drive the strategy, which included delivering the IPO and supporting through various other M&A activities, which included the DPO transaction.

Looking at my journey in a little more detail, during my early years at Network International, I helped apply the control framework, set up the right reporting mentality, improve the reporting to drive more insightful analysis, and shape the FP&A function in the business. I also helped in delivering data insights, thus allowing the business lines to make the necessary commercial decisions and drive for success. 

Driving the right balance across all facets of finance is tough with a small team, but you strike the right balance to deliver what’s required. 

This inevitably led to introducing profitability analysis for the business, which allowed us to look at it across various segments of the company, including business lines, customer groups, industry sectors, and at an individual customer level. This helped the business make critical decisions and, in turn, improve profitability.

I also worked on and supported quite heavily through the IPO, including building out the five-year business model, working on the long-form reports, supporting the prospectus, and various other streams that come as part of an IPO. 

Throughout my tenure, I was involved in driving the strategic direction of the business in conjunction with senior stakeholders, including identifying key strategies and outlining the financial strategy to support. Some key strategic initiatives included the drive to focus on SME customers to increase profitability and the renewal of significant contracts (including for Emirates NBD) with a contract value in excess of USD 300 million. 

Being part of a robust financial infrastructure business in the Middle East has shaped my experience in several ways:

  1. Exposure to cutting-edge technology: this has been through continued investment in innovation on the platform and delivery of new products and solutions. 
  2. Opportunity for growth and advancement: With the rapid growth in the financial infrastructure sector and, in particular at Network International, I was given many opportunities to grow and enhance my career with the company.
  3. Contribution to economic development: Working for a market leader, we were able to help support businesses to grow and develop, in turn contributing to the development and stability of the local economy.
  4. Cultural diversity: The Middle East is a region with a diverse cultural landscape and working in a market-leading financial infrastructure company provided exposure to various cultural perspectives and ways of doing business.
  5. Challenge and learning: The financial infrastructure sector in the Middle East is rapidly evolving, and with that, I had to continuously adapt and learn new skills and technologies. This was party showcased through the introduction of automation, including the use of bots for some mundane and repetitive financial activities. While this was challenging, it was a rewarding experience.
As a head of finance for an acquirer, minor changes in your pricing model can dramatically change your bottom line. This is where the CFO becomes extremely crucial – what does making decisions at such a large scale look like? How does one go about them?

As the head of finance of an acquirer, making decisions that can significantly impact the bottom line is a crucial part of the role. These decisions include pricing strategies, mergers and acquisitions, and other financial transactions. The CFO must be able to balance the potential risks and rewards of these decisions and choose the course of action that is in the company's best interest.

When making decisions at a large scale, a CFO typically follows a structured process to ensure that all relevant information is taken into account and that the decision is made in a thoughtful and deliberate manner. This process can include the following steps:

  1. Identify the problem or opportunity: The first step is to clearly define the problem or opportunity that the company is facing. This could include a change in pricing strategy to maintain/increase revenue or to ensure continued profitability.
  2. Gather and analyze information: Once the problem or opportunity has been identified, the CFO will gather and analyze relevant information. This could include financial data, market research, industry trends, and competitive analysis. The CFO will use this information to understand the potential risks and rewards of different options.
  3. Generate options: With a clear understanding of the problem or opportunity, the CFO will generate a range of potential options for addressing it. This could include a range of different pricing strategies.
  4. Evaluate options: Once a range of options has been generated, the CFO will evaluate them to determine which one is the most viable. This evaluation will consider various factors, including financial performance, risk, and alignment with the company's overall goals.
  5. Make a decision: Based on the evaluation of the options, the CFO will decide on the best course of action. The decision will also consider the internal and external environment of the company, as well as the political and social situation.
  6. Implement and monitor: Once a decision has been made, the CFO will work with the rest of the management team to implement it. This may include developing a detailed plan of action, allocating resources, and communicating the decision to stakeholders. The CFO will also closely monitor the progress of the decision and make adjustments as necessary.

Of course, the specific details of the decision-making process will vary depending on the situation and the nature of the problem or opportunity. But in general, this structured approach can help CFOs make large-scale decisions that are well-informed, thoughtfully considered, and aligned with the company's overall goals.

Has your experience shaped your current approach at KMMRCE? Anything you are doing differently now than before?

The experience gained throughout my career has always helped to shape my approach in new roles and businesses. This remains the case with KMMRCE also.

I have been able to put to good use the experience gained over my career, including delivering a best-in-class financial control framework, helping to drive the growth of the business, and being able to provide the requisite insights and challenges to ensure success.

Having progressed from more established businesses to a startup, I have had to adapt my approach to deal with the challenges that go with the territory. My focus is now heavily weighted on improving and maximizing cash flow, identifying opportunities to drive revenues, and ensuring that the business's funds are deployed in the most effective manner to deliver the greatest ROI (return on investment). In addition, I am also focused on ways to deliver enhanced business value and subsequently deliver fundraises. While I have been critical in record-breaking IPOs and large M&A activity, I have not had much direct exposure to fundraising, and this is an area to which I am adapting very quickly. 

The CFO must be able to make strategic decisions that will help the company to achieve its goals in the long term while also keeping a close eye on the financial health of the company in the short term.

Aside from the above, it's about working with much smaller teams. In an early-stage startup, as you can imagine, you don't have the privilege of a full finance team; hence, it is about making effective use of the available resources and getting stuck in yourself. Driving the right balance across all facets of finance is tough with a small team, but you strike the right balance to deliver what’s required. 

You have been in the Fintech industry for some time now, and a lot of the finance stack, including accounting, is now getting superpowered. Have you gone through a digital transformation phase with your team? What did that change management process look like?

Yes, I have been through a digital transformation phase which has included the implementation of new systems (ERP, Data Analysis Tools, etc), the introduction of new technologies such as the use of bots, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, and finally adopting cloud-based systems and processes.

This digital transformation leads to changes in processes and workflows, requiring a change management process to ensure a smooth transition.

Some examples: 

A change management process for the digital transformation included:

  1. Assessment: Assessing current (AS-IS) processes and identifying areas for improvement and potential for automation.
  2. Planning: Developing a detailed plan for implementing new technologies and processes, including a timeline and resources required.
  3. Training: Providing training for employees on the new technologies and processes to ensure they are equipped to perform their roles effectively.
  4. Communication: Communicating the changes to all stakeholders, including employees, customers, and partners, to ensure they are informed and understand the reasons for the changes.
  5. Implementation: Implementing the new technologies and processes, including any necessary changes to systems and infrastructure.
  6. Monitoring and Evaluation: Monitoring the performance of the new processes and technologies, evaluating their effectiveness, and making any necessary adjustments.

Change management processes can vary depending on the specific organization and the extent of the changes being made, but the key is to ensure a smooth transition and minimize disruption to operations.

Typically it takes a while for startups to become profitable. How do you, as a CFO, navigate profitability versus growth?  

As a CFO of a startup, balancing the need for profitability and growth can be challenging. It's important to remember that startups typically require significant investment in order to grow and scale and that profitability may not be achievable in the short term. However, it's also important to have a plan in place for achieving profitability in the future, as investors will want to see that the company has a clear path to generating revenue and earning a return on their investment.

One way to navigate this balance is to focus on achieving product-market fit and achieving a level of revenue that is sufficient to cover the costs of operations. Once this is achieved, the company can start to consider strategies for scaling the business. This might include expanding the product line, increasing marketing efforts, or investing in new technology to improve efficiency and reduce costs.

Another approach is to set clear milestones and goals the company aims to achieve in the short and long term. This can help the company to focus on the areas that are most critical to achieving profitability and growth while also providing a framework for making strategic decisions. For example, the CFO may focus on building a strong and efficient financial model, keeping track of important financial metrics, creating a forecast and budget, and regularly assessing whether performance is on track.

It's also important to manage expenses and allocate resources efficiently. CFOs should be familiar with the company's burn rate, which is the rate at which a company is losing money, and make sure that the company is not spending more than it is taking in. This could include reducing or eliminating non-critical expenses, negotiating better deals with vendors, and finding ways to increase revenue without significantly increasing costs.

Ultimately, navigating profitability versus growth requires balancing short-term and long-term thinking. The CFO must be able to make strategic decisions that will help the company to achieve its goals in the long term while also keeping a close eye on the financial health of the company in the short term.

You mentioned you think the role of CFO is changing a lot and evolving into a more strategic role. Please tell me more about that and how it differs from the traditional CFO role.

Traditionally, the role of a CFO (Chief Financial Officer) has been focused on managing the financial aspects of a company, such as budgeting, accounting, and financial reporting. However, in recent years, the role of the CFO has been evolving to include a greater focus on strategy and business management.

In recent years and particularly in 2022, there has been a significant increase in investment in the startup and technology ecosystem in the Middle East region. This trend is expected to continue as the region continues to present opportunities for growth and development in these sectors.

One of the main reasons for this shift is the increased complexity of the business environment. Companies are now operating in a global economy and are facing more competition than ever before. To succeed, they need to be able to make informed strategic decisions, and the CFO is in a unique position to provide the financial insights and analysis that can inform those decisions.

In this new role, CFOs are expected to be more strategic in nature, with a deep understanding of the business, the market, and the competitive landscape. They work closely with the CEO and other members of the leadership team to set the company's overall direction and to identify areas for growth and improvement. They also help to shape the company's business model and to make key decisions about investments, acquisitions, and partnerships.

In addition to their traditional responsibilities, such as budgeting and financial reporting, CFOs are also taking on additional responsibilities, such as:

  • Managing risk
  • Advising on technology strategy
  • Advocating for the company and its vision to investors and stakeholders
  • Understanding and providing insight into customer needs, market trends and technology advancements to leadership team
  • Being the liaison between finance and other departments such as sales, marketing, operations, and IT

To be successful in this new role, CFOs need to have a combination of financial expertise, business acumen, and strategic thinking. They also need to be effective communicators and leaders, able to influence and collaborate with a wide range of stakeholders across the organization.

Overall, the role of CFO is becoming increasingly strategic and business-focused, requiring a new set of skills and a different approach to decision-making. In this new role, CFOs can play a critical role in helping their companies to achieve sustainable growth and success in the long term.

We've been seeing a lot of capital flowing in the Middle East region in the startup and tech ecosystem. What are your thoughts on this, especially in comparison to how other parts of the world are dealing with the current environment, and what's your prediction for 2023?

In recent years and particularly in 2022, there has been a significant increase in investment in the startup and technology ecosystem in the Middle East region. This trend is expected to continue as the region continues to present opportunities for growth and development in these sectors. However, it's worth noting that the investment landscape can vary across different countries in the region and is also subject to various global economic and geopolitical factors. For example, UAE and KSA are at the forefront when it comes to available capital by virtue of their sizeable populations, relatively lower penetration of digital payments as compared to Europe, and also the speed of adoption of new technologies and payment methods. 

In comparison to other parts of the world, the investment environment in the Middle East region is unique and has its own set of challenges and opportunities. Some of these include access to talent, regulatory environment, and infrastructure development.

Being able to effectively communicate with a wide range of stakeholders, including team members, senior stakeholders, and clients, is essential for success in a leadership role.

It's worth noting that the global economic environment continues to evolve and can impact investment patterns and trends in various regions, including the Middle East. Therefore, it's difficult to make a precise prediction for 2023. Still, it's expected that the investment activity in the region's startup and technology ecosystem will continue to grow, albeit possibly at a more modest pace compared to recent years. 

2023 is going to be an interesting one. With a strong capital markets agenda in both KSA and UAE, and the drastic measures taken to facilitate offerings in the markets in terms of ease of doing business and performing exits (IPOs), this will create an environment that is very constructive for a further influx of capital. In addition, UAE and KSA are rife with a very constructive base of local investors who have deep pockets and are willing to participate in transactions.

The continued urge of investors to diversify away from other regions, including western Europe, China, and other emerging markets that are becoming less attractive, will also result in greater liquidity for the region. 

In summary, I would expect more of the same in 2023 unless there is a radical change in the macroeconomic environment or energy prices and the sentiment turns. Otherwise, I expect interest from investors to remain and deliver an elevated level of activity in 2023 

What advice would you give senior finance experts looking to transition into leadership roles? 

My advice would be as follows:

  1. Develop strong communication skills: Being able to effectively communicate with a wide range of stakeholders, including team members, senior stakeholders, and clients, is essential for success in a leadership role.
  2. Build a diverse skill set: A well-rounded skill set that includes not just financial expertise but also leadership, strategic thinking, and problem-solving abilities is crucial for thriving in a leadership role.
  3. Stay current with industry trends: As a leader, you need to be aware of the latest developments in your field, including new technologies, regulations, and market trends, in order to make informed decisions.
  4. Build a strong network: Having a strong professional network can help you stay informed, access new opportunities, and gain valuable insights and advice.
  5. Embrace change: Leading a team often requires making difficult decisions and navigating change. Being open to new ideas and approaches, and having the ability to adapt to change, is essential for success as a leader.
  6. Lead by example: A leader should lead by example and be a positive role model for others. This includes being honest, trustworthy, and accountable.
  7. Develop a leadership style that works for you but is adaptable: Everyone has their own unique leadership style. Successful leaders know how to adapt their style to different situations and teams.
  8. Be a good listener: Listening to your team and taking their feedback seriously is a key to becoming a successful leader.
  9. Have a proactive and collaborative mindset: While leading a team, you need to be proactive in your approach, be that by identifying challenges or in achieving/leading the team to achieve the many goals of the business. You will note that on most occasions, you will need to collaborate with other teams, and colleagues in order to achieve these goals. The days of “this is not my job” are well and truly behind us. 

While doing the above would help with the transition into leadership roles, it is also important to develop your own vision, keeping in mind your role and business strategy and be able to impart that on the team so they share and are invested in the same. 

5
January 25, 2023

Interviewed by

Leen Shami

Navigating Startups as a CFO: An Interview with Varun Gehani

Tell us a little about yourself. If your life was a movie, what would your career look like?

My life is like a movie for me, and I am thankful to god for every day and for being where I am today. 

I think honestly, hand on heart, I would be flying a jet, whether that led me to the heights of success or not! 

When you start your journey in a suburban background, in a dynamic country like India with fierce competition, you really have to hustle your way out. 

I started with setting up and achieving small goals that organically opened new doors and new opportunities for me, especially in times when I was exposed to new boundaries.  

But embarking on my journey as a Chartered Accountant, I continued sailing in the vast ocean of the financial sector and kept following the most logical path I felt for myself throughout my career.

This has led me to where I am today; continuing to contribute to a socio-economic cause via Buy Now Pay Later. And as for my movie script, I feel this is just the beginning. 

"A CFO's role has completely evolved from being a closed-door, finance-focused function to a strategic leader steering the company’s ship in the right direction."
You mentioned in an earlier conversation that stepping out of your comfort zone is really important. Can you tell me about a time when you stepped out of your comfort zone throughout your career journey?

Looking at my two-year-old daughter, it starts from childhood, doesn't it? From crawling to walking, walking to running, and so on, a child simply has to go beyond their comfort zone to grow.  

In a similar thread, my career has not been without challenges and moments of discomfort. Whilst I have always loved numbers, I never imagined I would qualify as a Chartered Accountant in the corporate world, a career that has led to 14 years of experience across 8 roles in multiple sectors and markets.

I'd like to believe that I have done justice to each of the roles, as for me,  the life cycle of learning and contribution has always been a constant. So, if we were to place these in 3 buckets. I'd say the first one would be three months of grasping, then six to nine months of excelling in a role, and then it's about a year plus of contribution. Now, as you climb the ladder, it’s inevitable to experience  multifaceted complexities; success does not come without overcoming barriers or the drive to exceed expectations.

But I think, in a nutshell, it remains the same, the overall dynamics, right?  

It's quite natural initially to feel like a fish out of water when you are thoroughly taking a plunge into a completely different domain, which is definitely not your comfort zone.

For me, the most memorable moment of stepping out of my comfort zone, amongst others, would be when I moved from a senior credit underwriter to coverage (business side of the bank), and I eventually ended up in a more strategic role in building the digital ecosystem at the bank. 

However, you learn on the go, and over a short span of time, you develop your new comfort zone! 

I think you can only realize your true potential by exploring your boundaries, not to mention your personal intellectual growth in a given role will also be finite. 

You joined Postpay in August 2021, roughly 2 years after it was founded. Typically, how do startups know when it's time to hire a CFO?

Just two years; it feels nothing less than five years now ! The growth has been immensely steep from an intellectual perspective.

Coming to your question, I wish there was a textbook answer. 

From experience, I would say it’s that moment when you have successfully launched your product as a business in the market, and you're breaking your shackles as a startup and heading into a hyper-growth phase. And this could be at any point in time through the life cycle of the startup - for a couple of startups, it could be at just post-seed, I would say, or closer to series A. A couple of the other ones would be post-Series A. So the ideal timing is at a point in time when as a company, you are growing so fast that financial management requires proficient and undivided attention. It is truly that time when a startup should think that this is the right time to hire a CFO.

How does your role as CFO generally evolve throughout a startup's lifecycle?

If I were to answer, what's the role of the CFO? I would say it is to ensure the lights of your company are always on. That's truly your primary goal!

However, as with any senior leadership role within a startup, you become agile and embrace multiple hats whilst maintaining close to your core. And whilst my core will always be finance tied to fundraising, financial management, budgeting, treasury management, etc., my role at Postpay today is not without overseeing risk management, operations, compliance, governance, and customer experience. And not to mention the value I contribute to sales and partnerships from a strategic perspective. 

So to summarize, as with most other key stakeholders at a startup, the role has to be multifaceted.  It can't be one-dimensional.

Like you said, it's multifaceted, and it has become more common for CFOs to play a strategic role in their companies. Have you introduced new strategies to Postpay since joining?

Absolutely! A CFO's role has completely evolved from being a closed-door, finance-focused function to a strategic leader steering the company’s ship in the right direction.

At Postpay,  I have driven major strategic decisions across various functions alongside our CEO. At any startup, a CFO should not be confined to finance and fundraising alone. It’s important to contribute and influence the strategy across multiple domains; sales, marketing, and tech to name a few.

Every day I find myself asking business case questions that aren’t restricted to finance; “Is this product truly valuable to our customers and partners? Does our commercial strategy line up with our business goals? Do we need to evaluate any variables within the product roadmap?”

And I wouldn’t change a thing, honestly! I'm grateful to have the opportunity to continue to grow personally as well as positively contribute to every function and domain that drives our company's success.

And you mentioned you work with Tariq Sheikh, the CEO of Postpay, right? Typically, CEOs set the direction for a company, while the CFO supports that direction. At Postpay, how closely do you work with the CEO? And how do you ensure building a strong CEO-CFO relationship?

Yes indeed! Any key leadership position in an organization, and that of CFO, would typically have three elements to it; your vision, strategy, and execution.

If you've laid a clear and lucid plan across these three elements, then you're aiming for success. And to plan this effectively, you have to be hand in hand with the CEO and other key stakeholders. 

As far as relationships are concerned, I'm a strong believer that relationships cannot be either created or fabricated, they have to naturally build over time with confidence that you generate amongst each other.

One of the key fundamentals that both of us truly come in and bring to the table is the hustling mentality. It's a common word that we hear in the startup eco-space, but it's truly the need of the hour, every day! You wake up in the morning, and it's hustling from one desk to the other. So taking the most logical decision in the organization's interest has been a clear common motto.

One of our key principles at Postpay is to ‘Be Real’, which only means you have to ‘Be Yourself’. How long can you wear a mask, or can you be someone else? When you're portraying someone else, you will eventually have to give in, and you might not make the same decisions. That’s true for yourself as well as the company. And hence, we truly acknowledge and appreciate each other's perspectives.

There would also be times when you need to challenge each other in decision-making, but I think with mature individuals, sanity always prevails, right? If you have a logical rationale for a decision that you are challenging, then I think the results would eventually be positive.

So overall, both of us believe in the motto that processes are also as important as the outcome; hence we continue to focus on them. As long as the paths are aligned, I don't believe a situation of grave conflict will arise. Having a relationship with a few undercurrents wouldn't truly help either of us or the organization, so it has to be a naturally evolving relationship. 

Looking at your career journey, it is evident you’ve had extensive experience in the banking industry. Are there significant differences between the financial roles in the banking industry and a startup? Can you elaborate on that?

Yes, absolutely! I think, to be honest, it's more like a 180-degree change in my career. I wouldn't say a complete 360 switch, because I probably continued the same role but from the other side of the table.

So during my career with Citi, it was more of an advisory role I played, advising the CEOs and CFOs of my clients. The major difference now is moving from an advisory position to executing it, right? In a nutshell, you put your money where your mouth is, and this is exactly the thought that's coming by now. Standing by your opinions and decisions in creating a successful business is, essentially, what you end up being on the other side.

I think another major difference is moving from a thoroughly structured and also risk-averse place to an unstructured and completely agile one. So every small or large decision that you make today will shape the future of the company. The overall time spent in large structure organizations (banks ) versus a fintech is at least 10x. A few of us, as leaders within the organization, make a logical decision, and it is executed the very next minute. As against a completely structured organization, like a bank, where you would have to go through a variety of chains of approvals. Nothing wrong with it, right? But it's just about speed to market. 

Another major factor is the sense of creation. While you are empowered to steer the ship of the company, the sense of owning something, whether great to not so great, is immense. This is something that is not rare to find in a startup.

An effective CFO not only prepares financials but also adapts the financial data to the decision-making process. How do you ensure you’ve chosen the right analytical framework and context for the problem?

Preparing and presenting the financial statements is an outcome or a result. The decision making, all the strategic alignment is truly what's done before that, which is the key. 

One of our principles at Postpay is to be obsessed with data. A decision or challenge to a thought process would not be considered or evaluated without seeing the data to support its case; whether this is financial data, product analytics or even marketing data. It is this ethos that fuels us with confidence when presenting a new framework or finding a solution to a problem. 

Creating business models, strategic alignment of the company, and aligning with the board; all of these are first steps and eventually feed into the financials. So, the preparation of the financials, and presentation of the financials is just a result. It's an outcome of what has gone throughout the journey of the company or its operations.

"The most important role of the CFO is to ensure the lights stay on, and that means having a constant laser focus on your business and runway."
In your experience, have you encountered any challenges related to expense management? 

You are opening up a pandora's box! Expense management is not really plain and easy as it sounds. You think, do you really need a tool? Why can't you do it to yourself? You're certainly behind the eight ball if you don't get it the right way - as we say in the game of pool. 

The challenge is right from identifying the need to putting up a clear structure of governance in place. Having the background of a complete structure of the organization, you can surely set up an extremely watertight expense management policy. I've seen this all my life throughout the 14 years of my career; as I have always been in a structured place; we can have a 50-pager expense policy that articulates each line and all the different policies of who you should go to for approval, or what can be approved, what not. 

But you can't have overkill in a startup, right? It has to be fairly agile. People also understand the purpose of the policy. The purpose of the policy is not to create an artificially creative expense structure. The policy's purpose is to have the right framework and the lightest one. So while keeping that in mind, I think if you are able to place the right controls and ensure that you don't overcomplicate it, you have cracked the code.

It's a catch-22 situation every time you think about what kind of expense policy you need to adapt to. But, what we've also seen at Postpay from when we started, which is 2019  up until today, we've also evolved from a startup to a scale-up, and certainly, there is a need for a decent expense management policy and tool.

We have created something in-house, at this point in time, but we continue to explore external tools, which could be a more efficient way to manage our expenses. 

And if I may ask, how did you manage expenses at some of your previous roles? 

I've always worked in larger corporate houses and institutes and the expense management tools have been completely structured. The likes of large audit firms, multinational banks, etc., all have their self-created in-house tools. If you ask me now, sitting on the other side, could it have been simpler, yes definitely without a doubt. It is surely a bit overcomplicated. 

Do you think you need to go through the entire chain of approvals throughout the life cycle of a journey for a small expense? It is also about the overall timelines - right from the time you put up the expense till the time you get paid. I think there's a lot of pain to be solved there. And if you ask me, whether people have really got the right recipe , I don't think they have. And that's not only in organizations as large as banks or financial institutions but also in mid-tier companies. When I used to speak to a lot of my clients in the mid-tier, and when I'm saying mid-tier, it's a $ 100 to 500Mn (revenues) company, they also continue to face a similar dilemma. 

You want to have a reasonably decent expense management tool, but as I said, it's a catch-22, you don't want to complicate it beyond a point. 

In such unprecedented times, where the IMF and World Bank have warned us about the risk of a global recession in 2023, how do you navigate the turbulence as the CFO of a startup?

Truly we've heard time and again about a weak outlook for 2023. Whether the climate has a deep or shallow impact,  here for the short or long-term, these are warnings that can’t be ignored. Costs are on the rise, interest rates are starting to bite and consumer spending is in decline. All of these symptoms naturally learn towards an incoming recession. What’s more, the return of Covid-19 in China is another symptom to add to the list of concerns for our economy.

Navigating a startup through these turbulent times is not a piece of cake. As a prudent CFO, you need to be prepared for the worst whilst planning for the best outcome with the right amount of growth. This period of economic uncertainty demands agility, quick adoption, creative thinking, and faster decisions.

As I mentioned earlier, the most important role of the CFO is to ensure the lights stay on, and that means having a constant laser focus on your business and runway.  Now, I think runway, all of us are well aware of this term; it's the cash that you have in hand with respect to how much you burn every month. So curtailing your burn could be a double-edged sword when you are placing that in context with growth, and hence one really needs to circumnavigate the situation very meticulously.

In these times, it’s not important to become a unicorn, but more a camel that conserves its resources. 

Now, given that we have noted early signs of upcoming turbulent times, we at Postpay are reasonably well placed as a company to navigate it. Having said this, we are also cautiously optimistic as we've seen these signs and have a decent adaptive plan in place; and are all set for a good 2023 !

For startups looking to raise in 2023. Would you have any advice for them? 

2023 is coming with its own unique challenges and I don't think this is truly the time to go out and possibly do a fundraise, or if you want to do it, then do it now rather than in Q3 or Q4, only if we could predict the future, but it probably is going to be a bleak later on.

What we've seen across the GCC is more like a ripple effect. So you see the signs earlier in the west, you see what steps they're taking, and then eventually this kind of falls down here. Apart from a couple of crises that we saw earlier in 2015, unique to the region, that was more around the Small and Mid-Market segment. 

Overall, we at Postpay are thankful to not be completely dependent on fundraising at this point in time. Valuations might not really stack up, but it is really not as bad as it looks like from the outside. And If there is a region to watch for in the year I believe it is the GCC !

Is there any advice you can give young accounting and finance professionals?

Finance and accounting professionals will continue to be at the core of every economy. The passing ratio of candidates across various accounting and finance bodies globally – CPA, CA, ICWA, amongst others is really encouraging and it only proves that Gen Z’s are very much keen to make a career in the finance stream.

The world of finance has a lot to offer, certainly more than a successful career! I would really encourage the upcoming professionals to truly explore their boundaries from inception and not be bound by a 9 to 6. It includes exploring a career in the large corporations, financial industry, government bodies, audit firms, startups  and a lot more. 

You shouldn’t be afraid of making difficult career choices at different stages in your career. Making such bolder calls will only help you develop as an individual and as a great finance professional in the true sense. It will give you a 360-degree view of the world which will enable you to appreciate every point of view thereby creating a perfect recipe for a successful leader. 

 I truly wish everyone - good luck!

5
December 7, 2022

Interviewed by

Leen Shami

UAE Tax Expert Saqib Iqbal: Preparing for UAE’s Corporate Tax

SA Consultants Founding Partner, Saqib Iqbal, has experience with leading and consulting public and private sector companies in Corporate Finance, Taxation, and Audit in the UAE, GCC, and Globally.

Saqib is passionate about leading businesses to sustainable growth and success by improving efficiency, resolving complex issues, and optimizing processes to bridge the gap between their business aspirations and achievements.

As a key business hub, UAE will have the lowest corporate tax rates in the world. 
You have been in the financial industry for quite some time now. Can you tell us about your journey so far and how you founded SA Consultants?

It has been an explicit journey of 16 years in the finance industry. I started my journey back in 2007 with a Public Limited Company named Azgard nine limited, where I worked extensively in the corporate finance department. After moving to Dubai in 2016, I worked as a "Finance Manager" on an educational project which was part of "Dubai Investments." I worked with "Abu Dhabi Terminals (ADT)," which is part of "Abu Dhabi Ports (ADP)" as a Financial Analyst for more than three years. I have also taught business analysis and accounting subjects in many leading institutes and found it very rewarding to mentor young professionals to enhance their employability skills. 

SA consultants was my dream. Founded in 2022, it was established to be a dynamic and fast-growing professional organization committed to maintaining the highest standards of quality and providing comprehensive and specialist services both in the Middle East and abroad. Now our team consists of 25 professionals. We provide superior auditing, advisory, and consulting services. We have two offices in UAE and are a member of IGAL, a leading global network.

Considering we are nearing the implementation date of the Corporate Income Tax (CIT) in 2023, how should businesses prepare?

The CIT regime is expected to be implemented in 2023; the UAE initiates this move to meet international tax standards while minimizing the compliance burden of UAE businesses and shielding small businesses and start-ups. As a key business hub, UAE will have the lowest corporate tax rates in the world. 

From my point of view, the role of accounting will be very important, and businesses need to understand that the corporate tax will be calculated on "Net Profits" reported in a financial period. Every business in UAE should start looking into its accounting and legal structures to align with the CT requirements. 

Do you think the CIT will significantly impact businesses in the UAE?

Yes, I believe CIT will have a significant impact on businesses in UAE; in order to talk about the existing ones, they would be entitled to claim for increased costs under the typical change in law provisions in the concession. Parties involved in projects should consider how to manage accounting requirements to capture all relevant income, expenses, and deductions under the CIT regime. For the forthcoming businesses, CIT will impact sponsors' Internal Rate of Return, and the treatment of expenses and allowable deductions under the CIT regime will be an important consideration.

What are the effective dates, rates, and exemptions of the UAE CIT?

CIT is effective for financial years starting on or after 1 June 2023, June year-end - first CIT year is 1 July 2023 to June 2024, returns in end of 2024, 

Progressive tax rates

• 0% for taxable income below AED 375,000

 • 9% for taxable income above AED 375,000; e.g., if taxable income is AED 500,000, 9% applies to AED 125,000

Exemptions

• Businesses engaged in the extraction of natural resources are subject to Emirate-level corporate taxation and be outside the scope of UAE CIT.

• Individuals should generally not be in-scope unless they undertake a business activity linked to a trade license.

• Dividends & capital gains earned by UAE businesses from qualifying shareholdings in and outside UAE (details to be provided by the law).

• No withholding tax on domestic and cross-border payments.

• Gains from Qualifying intra-group transactions & reorganizations shall be exempt subject to additional conditions being met.

Are free zones in the scope of CIT?

Free zone entities will be treated as taxable entities subject to 0% rate provided, they comply with all regulatory requirements and do not conduct business with mainland UAE, but they will be required to register and file annual CIT returns.

What are the provisions for tax grouping?

A group of companies may elect to form a fiscal unity group for CT purposes, subject to conditions. There might be a need for new consolidated audited financial statements for CT purposes. Generally, a high shareholding threshold is needed to qualify for a CT group, which might be different from VAT grouping requirements.

What are some accounting considerations regarding P&L and cash flow?

Corporate tax will be calculated on Accounting Net Profits, which means every business must carefully understand the requirements of CIT and align their books. Treatments related to non-cash items, including depreciation, etc., another example could be where companies with a higher level of inventory must focus on year-end stock counts and pass the adjusting entries for any losses.

How should finance teams approach controls and processes around accounting, such as chart of accounts, process, and governance?

Finance teams should be transparent, and a chart of accounts should provide a complete and clear picture of every account in the general ledger of the company, broken down into sub-categories which should give the interested parties a clear insight into the company's financial health, accounting controls are to ensure that the organization is compliant with all the reporting requirements including CIT.

What tools are companies using to manage their expenses, and how would they benefit from Pluto’s expense management platform?

Companies should look for tools that interface with their accounting software if it isn't already included; at times, when my employees are on the road and often come across various expenses like meals and mileage, then such software must have the capacity to accommodate these transactions.

Pluto's expense management comes in with multiple benefits; it's a new technology that enables companies to manage their finances, gives them a cost control mechanism, eliminates petty cash, hassle-free reimbursements, and a reconciliation module for cash spend.

How can a specialist like yourself help companies navigate the upcoming changes in CIT?

The first and foremost thing is to make the management realize and accept the imminent change of Federal Corporate Tax and help them prepare their accounting system from the beginning of the respective tax assessment period. We at "SA Consultants" help our clients change their mindsets as they are unfamiliar with the upcoming changes, and we take this responsibility to update them immediately to make tax and pricing strategies for them. We work with our clients directly and on the sidelines, along with their Accounting/Finance teams, to help them understand the laws by looking at the potential impact on their business operations and the business's financial health.

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